Wojo: Abdur-Rahkman cool, clutch in Michigan win

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — It was all runs and reruns, back and forth, bounces and breaks. And then at the end, on the verge of blowing a game, Michigan found a new way out of the tumult, leaning on its serene senior.

He’s not the flashiest player or the leading scorer or the loudest guy. But on a night Michigan missed easy shots and clutch shots and let a lesser opponent rally, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman did what he does. With nary a word or a blink of emotion, he nailed two free throws with 1.2 seconds left to give Michigan a desperate, 68-67 victory over Maryland Monday night.

This was a game you couldn’t lose, not two days after beating your rival on the road, and yet the Wolverines came out as if they expected an easy win. Late in the first half, against a Maryland team missing two key injured players, they trailed 30-16 and didn’t look newly ranked or newly discovered — they looked newly humbled.

Then they did what they do with increasing fervor, with Moe Wagner and others nailing 3s, and freshmen Jordan Poole and Isaiah Livers bringing energy and effort. It came down to a fantastically frantic final 19 seconds, which certainly isn’t what John Beilein wanted, after Michigan led by nine with four minutes left. It also came down to missed free throws, two more by point guard Zavier Simpson, and that’s a concern.

After Simpson’s misses, Maryland’s Kevin Huerter drilled a wide-open 3 with 3.5 seconds left for a 67-66 lead, and it looked like another crushing home loss for the Wolverines. A week ago, they fell to Purdue 70-69, and in the final four seconds that night, could only heave a half-court shot.

Maybe they learned from it. Maybe they got a little lucky. Whatever they got, the Wolverines (16-4, 5-2 Big Ten) had to have it, or all the positive buzz after they beat Michigan State would have evaporated.

This time, Livers, who has played baseball, fired a perfect inbounds pass over the Maryland defense, over midcourt, to Abdur-Rahkman, who had slipped behind guard Anthony Cowan. Abdur-Rahkman drove immediately toward the hoop, no desperate heave, and was tripped and fouled by Bruno Fernando with 1.2 seconds left.

A less-experienced player might have panicked and tried to pop a quick jumper. But Beilein was saving this play for this situation, and his first thought when Abdur-Rahkman caught the ball?

“I said, we’re gonna win the game,” Beilein said. “I just felt he can go to the basket, and he’s gonna find a niche to get in there.”

The perfect 1,000

That’s what Abdur-Rahkman does, finds his niches. He was a symbol of Michigan’s scramble all night, and really a source of its cool demeanor all season. He struggled mightily, as the Wolverines often do in first halves, and made only two of nine field-goal attempts. But with 1:04 left, he drilled his only 3-pointer for a 64-59 lead, and then, as a 91-percent free-throw shooter, knocked down two at the end.

Fittingly, those points were the 999th and 1,000th of his Michigan career, a milestone reached by only 52 players in program history. It’s hard to imagine anyone compiling the total as quietly and methodically as Abdur-Rahkman has.

In the timeout before the free throws, while Beilein and teammates were talking, Abdur-Rahkman simply strolled to the line and waited for everyone else to follow. Nothing said, nothing gestured.

“It was simple, I just didn’t listen to anybody,” he said with a slight smile. “I was just visualizing making the shot, that’s the best way to explain it. Visualizing making the big play at the big time, so it’s nothing new.”

That’s his demeanor in the basketball dimension, largely emotionless, and on a team of rambunctious freshmen and one crazy junior in Wagner, it’s a perfect fit. When you ask Beilein where this Michigan team draws its calm competitiveness, he always refers back to Abdur-Rahkman, an underrecruited player who simply keeps improving and contributing.

He leads the team in minutes and is third in scoring behind Charles Matthews and Wagner, and while his “Rock” nickname is a play on his last name, it’s also a description of his disposition. Poole is one of those exuberant freshmen, and with Abdur-Rahkman scuffling against the Terrapins, Poole came in and lit up the Crisler Center crowd with three 3-pointers.

Heating up

Poole has adopted the “Microwave” moniker, and yes, he’s aware of Vinnie Johnson’s history. He brings his so-called swag when needed, and it certainly was needed in this one. No one appreciated it more than the steady senior ahead of him.

“(Abdur-Rahkman) is not a huge talker, he doesn’t get on a roller-coaster with emotion,” Poole said. “But he’s a great guy, super caring, never thinking about himself. Obviously I came in for him, hit a couple 3s, and when I came to the bench, he’s saying, ‘It’s your time now.’ All positive vibes, just the kind of person he is. He’s been under Coach B’s system for, like, 12 years, so he knows everything.”

He knows when he doesn’t have the burst on a given night, something most of the Wolverines were missing after a quick turnaround from the big victory at Michigan State on Saturday. In that regard, this was a huge win, because Maryland played well for long stretches, led by Cowan, who helped hold Simpson to 2-for-12 shooting.

When Maryland coach Mark Turgeon was asked how Michigan roared back, he practically scoffed at the question.

“They’re impossible to guard,” Turgeon said. “Let me say that again — they’re impossible to guard. Our guys battled their tails off, did everything right on defense. It’s the only way to guard those cats, with the big fella out there that can shoot it and drive it.”

Wagner was excellent again, with 18 points (4-for-6 on 3-pointers) and 11 rebounds. When he gets the inside-outside game going, the Wolverines indeed are difficult to guard.

But they were guardable for a big chunk of the night, before they became un-guardable for a while. Michigan scored 16 points in the first 18 minutes, then 41 in the next 14 minutes, from a 14-point deficit to a nine-point lead to the wild closing minutes.

“It would’ve been much easier to get ready, mentally and physically, if we’d lost to Michigan State,” Beilein said. “But the fact we won, there were a lot of distractions. I told them before the game, people are gonna say you’re pretty good. I’ll tell you how good you are if you can beat Maryland. I still think we have a long way to go to be really good.”

A long way to go but multiple ways to get there, from their dangerous 3-point shooting, to the big German in the middle, to the feisty freshmen. And yes, there’s always the picture of serene perseverance in Abdur-Rahkman, the one who rises above the noise.